Hamilton art historian shares Indian childhood traditions

Monolina Bhattacharyya-Ray has put her collection of hand-crafted toys from her native India on display at the Hamilton's Children Museum.
Art historian Monolina Bhattacharyya-Ray talks about her exhibit, Indian Dolls and Toys, at the Hamilton Children's Museum. 0:39

Art historian Monolina Bhattacharyya-Ray is trying to preserve an important part of her Indian culture and expose the city's children to playthings of her country's past through a special exhibit at the Hamilton Toy Museum.

Bhattacharyya-Ray took her 7-year-old daughter to her native India about a year ago on a trip to get acquainted with her family's culture.

Upon arrival, a family friend handed Bhattacharyya-Ray's daughter a Cinderella doll, one that could be purchased anywhere in the world and dressed in typical Cinderella attire.

"What struck me was she getting the Cinderella and she's very happy with it, but what is she learning from that?" said Bhattacharyya-Ray. "Is she getting anything about her cultural heritage from that?"

Bhattacharyya-Ray flagged this as a common problem amongst younger Indian generations: a lack of connection to their culture through their childhood toys.

"Clay toys, wooden toys ... as children, these are what we got to play with," she said. "My child would not necessarily get to play with them anymore."

Bhattacharyya-Ray approached the Hamilton Children's Museum to put her personal toy collection on display.

"When Dr. Ray approached us about her collection, we were very excited about it because that's the first time we endeavoured to do something like this," said Karen McCartney, curator at the children's museum.

Bhattacharyya-Ray started bringing Indian toys to North America as an art history PhD student in Minnesota. With each visit home to India's West Bengal state, she would return to the U.S. with a new toy.

Artists drew inspiration from Indian culture as well as everyday life, creating toys resembling elephants, street cobblers and decorated princesses, she said. All are made locally from naturally-occurring materials like jute fibre, metals and clay.

As Bhattacharyya-Ray noticed with her daughter's Western gift, this important part of Indian childhood was fading.

"[Collecting] especially became significant when I realized these things were going out of value and I thought, 'what are we going to give to our progenies for art?'" she said.

Preserving the past

Bhattacharyya-Ray said there is now a conscious effort among non-governmental organizations and museums in India to preserve ancient arts, but she thinks there should be a push for young people to engage in traditions.

"We read about younger generations not going in for certain professions," she said.

"Economically, it's not lucrative. This is not going to earn them money."

The Children's Museum encourages young visitors of the Indian toy collection to think about their own cultural histories.

"When the students are actually here and they hear Monolina's story, we're asking them to reflect on their family," McCartney said, of the curriculum that accompanies school visits to the Museum.

That's exactly what Bhattacharyya-Ray was hoping for.

"It's a privilege I have to preserve and share that," she said. "The best way to start sharing culture is with children."

The exhibit, Dolls and Toys: An Exhibition of Arts and Crafts from India, is on display at the Hamilton Children's Museum until July 2013.